Me, Me, Me
November 30, 2017
As the gift-giving season approaches, I find myself reminiscing fondly about my mom’s two iron-clad rules regarding thank-you notes:
- They must be written within 24 hours of receiving the gift.
- They couldn’t begin with the word “I.”
Trust me, I wasn’t a fan at the time. Within 24 hours?!? Couldn’t I at least have time to grow tired of the latest addition to my Liddle Kiddles collection before expressing my appreciation? (Her point exactly, I guess.)
And the “I” rule, the one she absorbed in parochial school and applied to every type of note? Blecht! It struck me as impossibly archaic, stuffy, arbitrary, contrived and unnecessary. (I think “stupid” is the adjective that floated through my mind at the time.) I remember my contortions in trying to avoid it. To this day, I get lots of mileage out of “Words can’t express my appreciation…” and “What a thrill it was to receive…”
If you’re wondering if “Thank you for the…” would have made the cut, trust me: Mom, an incredible wordsmith, managed to implicitly convey that such boilerplate mundanity was not acceptable.
So at the time, I interpreted Mom’s rules as making a slog of a chore even sloggier. But over time, I’ve grown to appreciate them …. especially the “I” rule.
In the first place, I grew to like the challenge. Putting parameters around a task as tedious as writing thank-you notes made it feel more like a a puzzle … a blank canvas with components I had to artfully, creatively and unpredictably apply. It instilled in me the habit of trying to infuse at least some degree of originality and personality into everything I wrote, from emails about staff meetings to the notes I tucked into my kids’ lunchboxes. To this day, I take puzzle-assembling approach to writing novels, and it never stops feeling like a fun, fresh game.
But even more than the mechanics, I’ve grown to appreciate the spirit of the rule: that “I” am not the be-all and end-all of the universe. I think those nuns were onto something when they taught Mom in fourth-grade Language Arts class that the most gracious way to interact with others is by focusing on them, not oneself.
What a sorely needed lesson that is. Our society seems hopelessly awash these days in ego and narcissism. From selfies to unvarnished bragging to artless Twitter posts, I think we need a refresher course in grace, selflessness and manners. I wish we could dial down the “I” a few decibels. Sometimes a value isn’t appreciated except in its absence, and humility definitely seems AWOL lately. I want it back.
Even writing that makes me feel guilty, knowing I shamelessly flog my novels on social media and frequently portray my family as Exhibit A of the Most Fabulous People Who Ever Lived. So I’m sorry in advance if I seem hypocritical.
But I feel compelled to give a shout-out to my beautiful mom (RIP) that, by words and example, she nudged me to continually examine my perspective on life and do my best to keep it from being self-centered. She taught me that the little things matter, that it is our approach to even the most banal tasks that speaks most authentically to our character. She taught me that “I” am loved, cherished, valued and, yes, special … but that this amazing birthright demands gratitude and service, not entitlement and selfishness.
I wish I could write a thank-you note to her now. But considering how strongly I’m feeling her presence right now, I’m sensing I just did.